A few years ago I remember a pastor friend telling me they tried something a little different for their Christmas services. Instead of the usual holiday décor and clutter of the sanctuary, they brought in a bunch of manure and hay and scattered it under the pews so the place would really smell like the stank manger where it all began. I laughed hysterically as he described everyone coming in, in all their best Christmas attire, only to sit in the rank smell of a barn.
They even brought a donkey in during the opening of the service that dropped a special gift as it moseyed down the aisle. Folks looked awkwardly at each other. Some were offended, some snickered, and some left. But for those who stayed… it was something like they’d never seen before. It was one of the most memorable services they’ve ever had.
They were reminded of the real meaning of Christmas — God entered the crap.
Jesus was born in a dirty, stank manger because there was no room in the inn. God came into the world as a refugee, born to a teenage mom that couldn’t even afford the usual offerings given in the Temple at the birth of a new child.
As Jesus was born, the Gospels tell of a terrible massacre that occurred, an unspeakable act of violence as King Herod slaughters children throughout the land, hoping to kill Jesus… which the Church remembers as the massacre of the “Holy Innocents.”
Perhaps the original Christmas was marked more with agony and grief than with the glitz and glamour of the shopping malls and parades. From his birth in the manger as a homeless baby, until his brutal execution on the Roman cross, Jesus reminds us that God is with us.
That’s what Emmanuel means, “God with us.” God is with us in the struggle to survive, amid the throes of poverty, in the fight for freedom, in a world full of violence. Jesus’ coming to earth is all about a God who leaves the comfort of heaven to join the struggle here on earth. God is with us.
Jesus did not just come to help immigrants and refugees; he came as a refugee. Jesus is the most incredible act of divine solidarity the world has ever known.
Let’s remember this Christmas that the Savior we celebrate was born into the crap. He couldn’t care less whether we say “Merry Christmas” or “Happy Holidays.” He’s much more interested in us getting dirty in the trenches than decorating the Temple. What Jesus cares about is how we care for the most vulnerable people on earth — the widows and orphans, the immigrants and refugees, the sick and the homeless.
The world we live in, like the world Christ lived in, is ravaged with violence and poverty. But the good news is that a Savior is born. He has come to preach good news to the poor and to disturb the rich. He has come to cast the mighty from their thrones and to lift up the lowly. He has come to bind up the brokenhearted and proclaim freedom to the captives.
He has come to remind us that God is with us — if we are with the poor.
This reflection was first published in “Keep Watch With Me: A Daily Advent Reader for Peacemakers.”